John Carr

Snooker Cue

Just as there were 'brave men before 'Agamemnon', so, doubtless, were there good billiard players prior to Kentfield; but we hear very little about them. One of the few whose name has been handed down to posterity is John - generally known as Jack - Carr. He was originally marker for Mr. Bartley, the proprietor of the billiard-tables at the Upper Rooms at Bath. When business there was slack, Mr. Bartley and Carr used occasionally to amuse themselves by placing the red ball on the centre spot, and attempting to screw off it into one of the middle pockets without bringing the red ball back into baulk.

Such a stroke would be easier under the conditions then existing of slow list cushions and rough baize cloths than it is now, and for a long time Mr. Bartley was the only person who could accomplish it. At last he confided to Carr that he did it by striking his own ball upon its side. It seems pretty clear, therefore, that Mr. Bartley was the inventor of the side stroke and screw; but he appears to have made very little practical use of his great discovery; whereas Carr, who soon outstripped his instructor in proficiency at this particular stroke, turned his knowledge to excellent account, and fairly astonished and mystified the frequenters of the billiard-room at Bath by the ease and certainty with which he brought off apparently impossible strokes.

They were naturally anxious to learn the secret, and, after Carr had artfully roused their curiosity to its highest pitch by remaining obstinately silent on the subject for considerable time, he gravely informed them that his wonderful powers were entirely due to the use of a certain 'twisting-chalk' that he had recently invented, and had then on sale. The demand for small pill-boxes filled with powdered chalk at half-a-crown per box was naturally enormous, and for a long time the wily marker reaped a rare harvest. If, as some have supposed, this was the first introduction of the custom of chalking the tip of the cue, the half-crowns were well invested; but, unfortunately, the weight of evidence goes to show that chalk had been in common use for this purpose for some time prior to Carr's smart stroke of business, and that he economically filled his valuable pill-boxes by grinding up some of the chalk provided by Mr. Bartley for the use of his customers.

What with the brisk sale of the famous 'twisting-chalk,' and the immense advantage that his knowledge of the power of screw gave him over all rivals, Carr must have been making a great deal of money about this time. Unhappily for his own prosperity, however, he was a desperate and confirmed gambler, and all that he made out of ivory in one form was lost through ivory in another. He never could resist 'flirting with the elephant's tooth,' and every shilling that he made was promptly lost at hazard. At last, fairly tired out by incessant losses scarcely broken by a single run of luck, and discontented with circumstances immediately connected with his professional pursuits, he determined to leave England and try his fortune in Spain.

It might have been imagined that the latter country would have proved anything but a happy hunting-ground, and that the Dons, on falling victims to Carr's powers of screw, might have taken it into their heads to lay down their cues and finish the game with knives. However, the Bath marker was evidently an excellent man of business, and the Spanish billiard-rooms proved veritable El Dorados to him. He made a tour of the principle towns and succeeded in easily beating everyone with whom he played.

The feats he performed by means of the 'side-twist' - as the screw stroke was formerly termed - amazed all who saw him play, and he managed to amass a considerable sum. Still, the old passion was as strong as ever, and once more proved his downfall. Spain was even more amply furnished with gambling-houses than England, and, as Carr's usual ill luck pursued him, all his doubloons vanished even more rapidly than they had been acquired; he was compelled to return home, and finally landed at Portsmouth almost in rags.

'Whether' - to use Mr. Mardon's own words, and it is to his excellent book that I am indebted for much of my information as to these early exponents of the game - 'players of those days were less particular than persons of the present period is not for me to determine; but it is no less strange than true that, even in so deplorable a garb, he no sooner made his appearance at the billiard-table than he met with a gentleman willing to contend'. In the 'gentleman willing to contend', Carr, in his hour of direst need, must have found a very foolish person, for no man of average sense would have lost seventy pounds to an individual whose appearance loudly proclaimed that he did not possess the same number of pence, and who, therefore, could not possibly have paid had the issue of the games gone the other way.

The denouement of this little episode fully confirms this idea. Quitting the room with the money in his pocket, Carr immediately proceeded to get himself fully rigged out in 'a blue coat, yellow waistcoat, drab small-clothes, and top-boots'. A little advice from the local Polonius was evidently sadly needed; the attire was probably 'costly' and may have been 'rich', but it was certainly 'express'd in fancy', and decidedly 'gaudy'. Arrayed in all this magnificence, Carr paid another visit to the same billiard-room on the following day, when he again encountered his victim.

The latter being, according to Mr. Mardon, a 'fine player and devoted to the game', lost no time in challenging the stranger to play. This match naturally resulted as the other had done, and Carr again won a considerable sum. When play was over, the gentleman remarked that 'he was truly unfortunate in having met with, on succeeding days, two persons capable of giving him so severe a dressing'. Carr, making himself known, thanked the gentleman for the metamorphosis his money had occasioned, and wished him a good morning.

In 1825, Carr played a match against 'the Cork Marker', at the Four Nations Hotel, in the Opera Colonnade. The latter was considered a very fine player in his day, and it is curious that no one seems to have known his name, for he is invariably alluded to under this somewhat vague designation. They played three games of 100 up, and, although Carr won all three, he was evidently encountering a foeman worthy of his steel, as 'the Cork Marker' reached 92 in the first game, and 75 in the third. In the second, however, he only got to 49, as Carr suddenly astonished the spectators by making twenty-two consecutive spot-strokes.

This was naturally considered a most extraordinary feat, and, as an offer was at once made to back Carr against all comers for a hundred guineas a-side, he can fairly lay claim to being considered the first champion of billiards, or, at any rate, the first whose claim to the title rests upon anything like a firm foundation. Pierce Egan, in his 'Annals of Sporting and Fancy Gazette', writes of him as the 'father of the side-stroke'; and though, as I have previously narrated, Mr. Bartley was the discoverer of the stroke, Carr was undoubtedly the first man who realised its importance and turned it to practical account.

Snooker Cue